When Tiwari awoke, he noticed a trail of ants migrating over his bare foot. Marching from a fiery subterranean tunnel over his crackling skin to the skeletal stump of termite-assaulted tree. Jawans in a single line. Straight as the night. Obedient as sunrise. Pointless as poetry.
Ants and lizards, rats and cats, dogs and cows. Everywhere and nowhere. Like beggars on crossroads. Bones shivering in winter, burnt in summer. Peacocks differed—dancing with equal apathy on rain-stained roofs and strangled braids of trees alike. But beyond these creatures, a line. A finger drawn through the dirt. Hop, scotch, jump. To Asha’s world—the land of white tigers and diadem snakes, Delhi’s zoological Park. DTC bus number 425 Kalkaji se Chidiya Ghar. It was his home too—but not for much longer.
The sun bent its back beyond the jamun tree and clawed its way back into his eyes. He grimaced. His eyes were turning into jewels, artificial pearls, mosquito eggs floating in stagnant water. Grasping the side of the bench, he slowly rose, brushing aside the ants. A crackle of history, arthritic bones crunching against each other. He made his way to the caged enclosure. To Asha.
Still no sign of her. It had been, what, almost ten days? Worrisome, but not yet time to panic. No signs of sickness, struggle, or flies. Nothing to do but wait and watch.
They had organised a farewell under the gulmohar tree. A cake, a watch, and a speech. Freedom to do whatever you please, be with those you love. Happy retirement, Tiwariji! The next morning, it surprised them to find him sitting on the same bench. Doing what? Waiting for Asha, of course. Pandey Sahib, Tiwari patiently told them, had given him instructions to ensure her well-being. The zoo director realised that Himalayan black bears took time to adapt; they were social creatures. Pratap and the others laughed as they walked back to their jobs. Why build a statue when we have Tiwariji? Why did Sher Shah Suri build the Kos Minar—that bulbous medieval milestone—within the zoo when Tiwariji could stand there for free? Arms split like a clock showing four and eleven, the road from Calcutta to Lahore.
It was too hot. She would need ice. Where was the ice? That fool, Pratap! There was an ordinance. 200 kilograms twice a day for ten Himalayan black bears. At 8 am and 2 pm. If there was something he was proud of in his 36 years of service, it was the ice! He even met the Chief Minister to make it happen.
A boy, eyes like night, came and stood beside him. He gripped the fence tightly and pushed his nose as far into the enclosure as possible. Lines—visible or invisible—weren't meant for children; they were far too blind or far too wise.
‘Where is he?’ whispered the boy.
‘She. Her name is Asha. Look there, those caves. She's probably sleeping in one of them.’
‘You know her?’
‘Yes, I'm her… well, I’ve known her for a long time.’
‘How do you know her?’
‘She’s a friend.’
‘Can I be her friend?’
‘Sure, why not?’
‘I think she needs a hug. I hug all my friends.’
His face curled like the leaves of a mango tree: a smile breaking like dawn.
The scent of an adult. A man, flushed pink face, with the authority of a father, brusquely grabbed the boy’s wrist and dragged him towards the lions.
A rusted green rickshaw, billowing smoke and dust, pulled up. Pratap at last!
‘Namaste, Tiwariji!’ he greeted, as he opened the back door. Large slabs of smoky ice sat in pools of water. ‘Kya garmi hai.’
‘Abh, what can I say?’ He wiped his brow on his shoulder. ‘It must be this heat. I can barely take it; what chance does she have?’
‘But has she eaten?’
Bananas, milk, bread, carrot, cucumber, potato, melon, and plum. The diet of an adult bear and a human toddler barely differed. A lie left the tip of his tongue and then retreated. ‘Yes, that’s what the boys… No, what’s there to hide from you? No, not even the bananas.’
‘You’ve seen her?’
‘I’m sure she’s there. The vet—well, the vet said he didn’t dare reach inside the cave. Part of it has collapsed, and if she’s injured, she could be ferocious.’ Tiwari felt panic grip him. ‘They didn’t find her?’
‘No, they looked.’
‘She’s injured then? Why did you call the vet?’
‘I didn’t. It was someone senior. Arre, don’t worry, Tiwariji—there’s a rumour going around in some foreign newspapers that we've lost her. That’s why Pandey Sahib and the others are so worked up. They are saying a 110-kilogram Himalayan black bear is roaming the streets of Delhi. That the zoo does not know where she is. And it’s my throat is on the line…’
Pratap groaned as he and a skeletal boy—a cousin of his fresh from the wastelands near Rampur—lifted the slabs of ice onto the limp, empty jute sacks.
Tiwari watched them unload the ice. He then walked down the meandering footpath, hollow shade, stepping on crackling gulmohar flowers. Blind sun, burnt grass, a lone koel. Had she escaped? To the snow-capped hills, the gurgling streams, the berry-laden brambles. Was it impossible? A giddy, joyful suspense seized hold of him.
The days tumbled into each other, a sickly, rotten mess of summer. Ten days became two weeks, then four. In the afternoon, the zoo had few visitors—aside from him. A frozen fixture. Pregnant with prayer. Ripe with anticipation. Falling and rising. His breath, the air, the days.
The sun flew across the sky and empty clouds glistened against his skin. Still no sign of Asha. It had happened earlier—1981—if he remembered correctly. Duchess, a stunning tigress, vanished without a trace one night. The papers got hold of the story and the city fell into a frenzy. Sightings were reported from all corners as the Duchess transformed herself into a clawed killer, a reincarnation of the goddess Kali. Rumours spread that she had been spotted snatching away a newborn from a slum in Nizamuddin. It even forced the zoo authorities to organise a search in the forests nearby. There was a stink of fear in the city, but they eventually found her as a pulpy mess of fur, bones, and flesh. An infection or an attack. They could never figure out what had happened, not that the Duchess cared.
A ripe jackfruit fell to the ground. Cracked skull, spilled insides. Squirrels gouging and gorging. Drunk ants, battalions broken, streaming in from all fronts like the rays of the sun.
The sky thundered and shawls of dust flew into the air. He looked up, his eyes a swirling pool of prayer and tears.
‘It’s going to rain, Tiwariji,’ shouted Pratap, shielding his eyes. ‘You should get back home; your wife will be worried.’
He nodded, but remained motionless.
Pratap reached for his arm and heaved him up. His body screamed in reluctance as he was lifted to his feet. He slowly walked past the other enclosures. The jackals had taken shelter under the concrete moat; the colobus monkeys screeched in chaos as they fought for space on a branch of a tree; and a sisterhood of jungle babblers squabbled on the path before him, their feathers fluffed, their expressions sour.
‘You’ve checked those caves below the moat?’ He pointed into the distance, his index finger quivering like the last yellowed leaf of a semal tree, defeated in the face of summer.
‘Ji. That’s the first place we checked.’ Pratap had a resigned expression on his face. Tiwari recognised it; he’d seen it caked on his son’s face a thousand times. Pratap continued: ‘We removed the rest of the bears to the enclosure on the far side and then the boys checked. No sign of her there.’
‘And the fencing, it is all intact?’
‘Yes,’ mumbled Pratap.
Tiwari shot him a look of disdain and then began walking along the enclosure, his eyes rooted to the ground. ‘I’ll inspect it myself.’
A frown and a sigh. ‘Tiwariji, I have a lot of other work. Can I leave you here?’
Tiwari waved him away, relieved to have some distance between him and the fool.
The ground was littered with death and life—dry, crumbling leaves in fiery shades interrupted by brazen shoots of green. Between the two were patterns: swirls and whirls. Another lexicon entirely. This was the language he spoke. Each slash on the earth was a word unfolding into a sentence, and eventually, a story would unfold before him. Tales of movement and change.
Like each day before, he walked slowly, his back bent like a tree that had survived the lashing of many a summer sandstorm. He found it late that afternoon—the first sign—a tilted concrete electricity pole with its lumbering head pressed against the fence. A closer look showed telltale scratches on the ground and a wooden crate used to store fertiliser lying upturned against the fence. He pushed a hand through the bushes. Above him was a gaping hole: the fence cleaved open by a jagged edge of the electricity pole. Asha was a climber; she had always been one. Clearly, she had scrambled up, using the box as support, and somehow manoeuvered herself through the hole.
Now the question was where had she gone? And why?
Tiwari turned around with his back to the fence. He breathed in deeply and tried to think like her. Why would she want to leave her home of all these years? He could only think of one reason: she did not feel safe in her enclosure. Asha was not one to cower, so perhaps she had someone smaller to take care of? His heart quickened, drumming with anticipation.
He closed his eyes and visualised a map of the zoo. To the south was the tiger enclosure. She would be sensible enough to stay away from there. The chimps and the macaques were in the west; they would probably create too much of a ruckus if they saw a lone bear wandering around. Beyond the moat was the Sangai deer enclosure; they were skittish but mostly placid. Beyond them were the chitals and gaurs; both of whom shared a mutually respectful relationship with bears. If she went in that direction, she would soon reach the boundary of the zoo, face to face with the impassable walls of the old fort, standing tall since the sixteenth century.
Yes, that is where she would go. He walked as though pulled by the strings of instinct. The area near the citadel walls were off the tourist trails and not very well-maintained, netted with thick brush. He swatted away a swarm of mosquito and plodded into the thick undergrowth. Water seeped black across his trousers.
He walked hunched over, his nose on the ground. It was hard to read the signs, but he knew she must be somewhere near. He didn’t know whether it was hope or despair whispering into his ear.
He walked to the very edge of the wall. There were small Mughal era caves beneath the ramparts. It was possible that she had found one. He continued pacing the boundary for an hour, pausing only when his back ached with viciousness.
In the distance, he could hear Pratap’s guttural voice: ‘Tiwariji, ho, Tiwarji! Where are you?’
He found a large boulder and sat upon it. His back breathed a sigh of relief.
‘Oh, Tiwariji! Your daughter-in-law called. She wants to know when you’ll come home.’
He had no desire to respond. Hope was fading like the light in the sky. He looked up at the sky. It was time for him to go home. He placed his hands on his knees and pushed himself upright. That familiar creak. Rusted and ruined, his body. He allowed his body a moment to stabilise itself.
A drop. The first taste of the monsoon. And as suddenly as she disappeared, Asha reappeared—her coat no longer black, no longer thunderous. Two lacklustre eyes gazed at him from the deep undergrowth, her body limp, a white crescent moon emblazoned in white across her chest.
Heavy drops fell like nails onto his stiff shoulders, his frozen knees. He no longer had to wait for her. Asha was free.
He stood still as the air, the last line of a song.
Tanvi Srivastava has been scribbling unintelligible lines into empty notebooks since she was a child. She has published short stories in online magazines (PureSlush, New Anthology of Asian Writing) as well as in print (The Reading Hour and An Anthology of Goan Short Stories). She is currently a mentee with the British Council’s Write Beyond Borders program. She lives in Bangalore with her husband and two young children, age 1 and 3, and is slowly toddling back to her writing life.